A Conversation with John Byrne
Sporting feral whiskers, playwright and artist JOHN BYRNE has a good rant about clothes, cigarettes and luvvies, and discusses his latest play, Nova Scotia.
You’re not too good at arithmetic.
Oh, am Ah not?
Well you managed to get the fourth part of a trilogy!
Ah added up my books and got it wrong. And then Ah discovered Douglas Adams had a four-part trilogy to the Hitch-hikers Guide. Ah’ll need to do five now – a five-part trilogy.
Will the characters, who started out in The Slab Boys, just be very, very old?
Extraordinarily old. It might even be set in the hereafter.
What do you think about ageing, the way it changes a person?
Well it does give a back-story to plunder, which is quite handy. When you were young, you used to see old guys and just thought they were always like that. And then you end up one of these old guys.
Talking of Douglas Adams takes me back to the 1980s and my hut in Newport-on-Tay where Ah used to write. Ah say hut – well, it was a bunker, a coalbunker. We cleared the coal out and turned it into my writing room. It was set against the wall of the house, out in a wee yard at the back. Ah blocked up the window with a board and ran a bulb from the garage, then Ah would shut the door and wouldnae know where Ah was. That’s where Ah wrote Tutti-Frutti, Your Cheatin’ Heart and a dramatisation of the massacre at Glencoe, a commission from the BBC, which I enjoyed doing although it never came to fruition. Writing that was hellish because Ah knew how it was gonnae end…
Worse than Hamlet, really.
Much worse than Hamlet, really… Ah gave masel pleurisy. Ah’d work throughout the night (cannae do that now) and emerge into the daylight and go, For God’s sake, it’s nine o’clock in the mornin. Anyway, that went on for many, many moons.
I loved doin Tutti Frutti, especially because ah didnae know what was gonnae happen at all. Ah just had a map of Scotland and sent all the gang off on a tour, and they told me when they didnae want tae go certain places. Ah sent them to places ah’d never been tae at that time, like Methil and Buckie. The funny thing was, when it got to the gang going in for an interview, very hungover, with Radio Buckie, ah made up a spurious telephone number but by pure chance I got the code right, and so Radio Buckie – it was hospital radio – complained when the series went out that they had been badly maligned. And also there was a real club in the Shotts called the Bon Accord, which I didnae know, and I described the one in Tutti Frutti with its filthy linoleum and stuff and then had to write a letter of abject apology. Anyway, what were you saying about arithmetic?
In Nova Scotia, Phil is married to a young women, Didi, a nominee for the Turner Prize…
…and they’re at daggers-drawn over what constitutes art. Didi’s argument is that in the 21st century it’s not about drawing, it’s about making statements – drawing conclusions. Then she overhears Phil criticising a piece of her work to her gallerist (they used to be called shopkeepers, you know; anyway, they’re now called gallerists). Didi gives Phil a good run for his money. Ah gave them both a good argument. Ah couldnae decide whose side ah come down on. Ah’m only the author of the piece.
Do you like a good rant?
Oh god, I like a good rant, yes.
Do you have any favourite ranters?
Michael Bywater’s one. He wrote the best column on the Iraq invasion. Well, he’s not so much a ranter as a champion of the things which are of value on this world, like a proper doctor – a doctor is a doctor who smokes. You know, you can’t get a proper doctor now.
You have to be a certain age before you can rant. You get young people ranting but it’s not the same. People my age, there are touchstones in their rants.
What are the touchstones in your rants?
Smoking. Ah’m very pro-smoking. Particularly on stage, where it’s banned by the Scottish executive backed up by the SNP government. They’ve endorsed the joke cigarette from Tam Shepherd’s joke shop in Glasgow, things that blow out talcum powder. Talcum powder! That’s going to lie in your lungs forever. What the fuckin hell are they saying, that it’s the healthier option?
Any other favourite rants?
Scottish actors. Ah can’t thole them. Ah cannot fuckin thole them. They’re moaning Minnies. The older ones all drank themselves to death coz they thought acting was a job for jessies and they had to cover it up. Ah mean, what is that about! Fuck off, do something else, get over it and just do your bit. And all that makin it up, paraphrasing and all that nonsense. Ah wouldn’t employ anybody like that. In fact, my reputation precedes me for being a real stickler – Ah mean, go and do something else if your no gonnae learn the script. And that goes even for substitutin a word by mistake. Ah won’t even have mistakes. Ah’m a terrible disciplinarian, a tyrant when it comes to that. Anyway, that’s ma rant about Scottish theatre out the way.
Ah believe life is for enjoying, unlike most Scottish men of ma age. They moan on and on. Ah’m not one for elastic-waisted trousers or Velcro slip-ons. They’re the scourge of the earth, men in beige! They cannae go out in beige, for god’s sake, and try tae tell us they arnae jessies.
So what’s your definition of what clothes are?
Clothes? Clothes are a way you tell people who you are. That’s why, when Ah do ma plays, Ah do character drawin – their clothes tell you so much about them. Ah’m a great fan of James Laver, he writes very eruditely and sincerely about the strength and power of costumes. Ah cannae understand anybody who isnae interested in clothes. Ah dress as an individual.
Where did you get the clothes you have on?
Well, this pair of jeans are Von Dutch, they’re American. It says on the wee label on the back, these are second-hand from The Rusty Zip, which is a branch of Armstrong’s wonderful emporium in Edinburgh. They were £14 and Ah bought them for the show but Ah liked them so much, Ah didnae give them to the show.
And the two shirts?
Aye, two shirts. I normally wear two shirts. Ah had on five layers the other day. I had what ma mother used to call an inside jersey. There was a second-hand Abercromby & Fitch royal blue sloppy-joe; and then on top a faded orange one with a shark on the back from the film The Beach; then a cashmere jersey with a collar from Armstrong’s with a big moth hole on the back (it has long sleeves and it’s wonderfully warm). And then on top of that, Ah would have a white dress-shirt ( which was £6), underneath a linen shirt ( which was £1.50 from a charity shop), and it’s got a wee dog on the label. And today Ah’m wearing a stripy, Parisian shirt. What does it say on the back?
G. Milners and Son, traditional shirt manufacturers since 1792.
There you are! £3.50 from the Sue Ryder shop in Nairn. So ah’m wearing that under my green shirt from the Dingwall penguin pool charity shop. The woman was selling it for £1 but I gave her £1.50 and she said, ‘Oh, that’s very generous of you.’ On top of that, Ah’m wearin a borrowed waistcoat. Ah thought it was mine, it was in the house. It’s from the Isle of Mull, I think. No it’s Harris tweed. And Ah’m wearin a badge which my daughter gave me with a little octopus on it. (There’s an octopus in my children’s story called Ato the Octopus.) And Ah’m wearin Crocket and Jones shoes and no socks.
Do you ever wear socks?
Aye ah do wear socks but Ah’ve had eczema on the inside of my ankle. The shoes came from the House of Bruar – and they were £275.
You bought them new?
Ah bought them new. Ah buy ma shoes new, except a pair of Crockett & Jones short boots Ah got for a tenner, brand new in the Sue Ryder shop, obviously some dead man’s boots. Ah saw these new in House of Bruar and ah sent off for them, Ah gave ma debit card number over the phone and they arrived in a lovely box with a nice note from the lady who’d taken ma phone call.
Would you say that stage sets are a bit like clothes, then?
Aye. The whole thing gives you the psychological make-up of the character. Nobody wears anything by chance in any play of mine. And the way the set is dressed tells you something else. Ah did a raid on Aldern Antiques for stuff for the set. Ah took Xavier and Honour with me, our 10-year-old twins, and they brought Xavier’s wee Springer Spaniel pup Rosie. Ah found a chest full of napery and Ah got a big, hand-made Mexican rug with wee guitar players and dancers on it, in red and blue, very strong colours. £3. And Ah got some pieces of impeccable, hand-made tablecloths and an unfinished, cushion cover embroidered wi a crinoline lady, which is only just started so it looks a skeletal but it looks wonderful, the wee bits of it that’ve been done, that was £2. There was a length of silk in a beautiful yellow, which must run tae about ten metres by about a yard and a half wide, watered silk for £4, not a mark on it. Ye have tae rake around and find things. So Ah bought £62 worth of napery for the show. Ah have the best time ever, going round shops – sorry, what did you ask me Jennie?
Yes, the thing with the set in Novia Scotia is it’s like the front of a fortified house, so we see part of the fortified house. And in Act Three, it’s a summer’s day so we’re mostly in the neglected garden of this fortified house, which is a bit of a wreck, freezing cold an’ all the rest of it. Didi owns the house, she got it for £37,000 – it disnae tell you that in the script at all, but Ah know – because her mother was a housekeeper there and she was very fond the guy who owned the house, sort of old landed gentry. So when he died without issue, Didi had the chance to buy it cheaply because it was so run-down. And round the side of the house is a… everybody remarks on this, What is that? Is it an outside toilet? Is it an old person’s sun-lounge area? Well, it turns out to be Phil’s studio and in Act Three, you get inside his studio. And inside his studio. It’s a bit like mine, with interesting wee things in it, like see-through dinosaurs.
So all these wee things in your studio, do you sort of play with them?
No, Ah don’t need to play with them now. You see, Ah had a very rich childhood. We’d a wonderful shop in Paisley called Yankee Mike’s, which was downstairs from Maison Conti, Tom Conti’s father’s hairdressing business. Yankee Mike used to go across tae America and bring back all these comics, it really was a fix when you opened the door and went inside. There was smell of these comics and you would just – you were away! We were great comic-swappers where Ah was brought up.
Ah’d always wanted a number one Meccanno set, or whatever the biggest Meccanno set was. And ah’d get number ten, which was the one after the start of set. The boy upstairs only got the starter set. He’d come down to play and ah think he stole, er, purloined several pieces of my Meccanno set. And Ah had a wee Dinky tip-up lorry. They were much better made then, die-cast. They’re all kind of lumpy now. How come the twenty-first century cannae make something that’s absolutely perfect with the perfect detail on that they could do in the 1940s? Sad but true. Ah wasnae well-off, we didnae get a lot of things bought for us, but nonetheless it was a rich life.
Army badges, that was another thing Ah collected, all Scottish regiments. Ah had them on the belt that was holding up my gym shorts and Ah was sent back to the dressing-rooms the PT lesson was over. They thought Ah was a complete hooligan. But even in those days, ah was a – dandy isnae quite the right word, Ah don’t like dandies. Ah like people who have dandyish tendencies, though. But dandy suit posers, who wear Sherlock Holmes capes, all that sort o’
… aw naw, Ah cannae be doing with that at all. I like Teddy Boys, that sort of dandy. And Punks that were dandies. But ah don’t like fops, Ah hate fops.
Your whiskers are… feral.
Ah’ve had that since Ah was eighteen. It used to be a wee black thing.
Do you think of it as a moustache, or is it whiskers?
It’s whiskers now. Of course, Ah’ve lost all my teeth. Ah chipped them playing football, and then the two front one came out and they give you a sort of dental plate, and ever time Ah was drunk, it would vanish under the bed or something and ah’d need to go to work without the missing teeth.
Do you have any teeth left?
Ah’ve got one tooth.
That means you can bring your chin up to your nose.
Ah know Ah can but Ah very rarely do. When people come into the house, the children are like, ‘Daddy’s only got one tooth,’ and they ask me, ‘Please show them your tooth!’
It’s there, see.
You’re a miracle of mastication!
I am, I can eat anything but I’m just a bit slower.
Ah but that’s good for you. Gurdjieff used to say masticate everything at least forty times before you swallow it.
The thing ah have to do is about four hundred times, even saps as they used to call it. Even bread and milk. When you were out of funds, your mother would make saps and it was delicious. Stale bread and the crusts were the best bit, in the warm milk and you would put sugar over the top.
And what about your hair. Do you always cut your own hair?
Ah do, Ah do.
It’s a bit of a baldy at the bottom.
I’m past caring. It’s like a kinda scalped bird. It’s a the studied ravaged look.
When you came into Main Point Books you were looking for diaries. Do you keep one yourself?
Ah’ve never been able to keep a diary but I do enjoy other people’s.
Getting back to Nova Scotia, what’s the nub of it?
It’s about change. Phil is incapable of changing until he’s confronted with certain facts about who he thought he was and the abuse of a number of facts on which he has capitalised for the last forty years.
Do you think that you’re still changing at sixty-seven?
Ah am. And Ah hope Ah’ll live till Ah’m one hundred and forty-nine so that Ah can change a bit more and become almost a human being before I die.
© Jennie Renton